Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner Annette Bening (left) and Julianne Moore star as a couple dealing with their two teenagers — as well as their anonymous sperm donor, played by Mark Ruffalo.
The Kids Are All Right
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use.With: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska
- Director: Lisa Cholodenko
- Genre: Comedy, Drama
- Running Time: 104 minutes
In 1967, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, white Katharine Houghton brought black fiance Sidney Poitier to visit parents Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; and though the film was a creaky sitcom, it captured something of mainstream culture's imminent upheaval. Now comes Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, another situation comedy — a stupendous one — that shakes up our way of looking at the family.
The parents are a same-sex couple, Nic and Jules — they're women — and the guess-who who comes to dinner is their anonymous sperm donor, located by their two teenage children, Joni and Laser. Each mother carried a child, so they both received his contribution, but neither expected him to be an influence on her kids.
Annette Bening's Nic is a doctor and more the authority figure, and Bening wears a short, fluffy haircut; lowers her voice, purging its tinkle; and presents to her kids a mask of stability, of someone who values structure above all. Nic doesn't articulate her political agenda, but it's implicit: that two moms can create a home that's every bit as traditional as one with a mother and father. She is admirable but also a bit of a pill — and Bening has a genius for illuminating the gap between the facade and the person underneath, desperately trying to hold the mask in place. Like the best comic protagonists, Nic takes herself too seriously — which guarantees her orderly universe will become untethered.
Enter Mark Ruffalo as Paul, the freewheeling hetero-bachelor restaurateur. Over the meal, Nic wears a frozen smile but questions him with visible distaste. But there are frequent cuts to the fascinated kids, Mia Wasikowska's studious Joni and Josh Hutcherson's Laser — who's struggling in school, doing drugs and unable to conform to Nic's view of him. He's especially taken by his "bio-dad's" view of higher education when Nic asks Paul why he works in the food services industry.
"Well, I always liked food," he says.
"Well I was asking," she says, "because I remember when I was reading your file back when we were looking for sperm, you said that you were studying international relations."
Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features
Ta-da! Annette Bening (left) plays Nic, a doctor and more the authority figure — while Julianne Moore's character Jules carries echos of Diane Keaton.
Ta-da! Annette Bening (left) plays Nic, a doctor and more the authority figure — while Julianne Moore's character Jules carries echos of Diane Keaton. Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features
"Yeah, that was a long time ago," says Paul. "Um. Yeah. I was considering it but then I dropped out of school."
"You dropped out of college?" asks Joni.
"Yeah, it just wasn't my thing."
"Why's that?" says Nic, pouring some more wine.
"It just seemed like massive waste of money after a while," says Paul. "I was just sitting on my ass listening to people spout ideas I could have just as easily learned in a book."
"Oh," says Nik. "Okay."
"I'm not saying that I think higher learning uniformly blows," says Paul. "I think college is great for some people. Joni, I think you're going to love it. But I'm a doer. That's how I learn. I'm just weird that way I guess."
Director Lisa Cholodenko is best known for the amusing-though-finally-tragic lesbian love story, High Art, but for The Kids Are All Right she collaborated with a more a commercial screenwriter, Stuart Blumberg. They contrive a flirtation between Paul and Jules, played by Julianne Moore, whose lyric ditheriness carries echoes of Diane Keaton. But as a duettist, Moore is in a class of her own. She takes on the rhythms of her co-stars — suggesting how marriage to the strong-willed Nic has kept Jules soft and suggestible.
It's easy to see why Paul charms her, since Ruffalo has a magnetic flakiness, and when Paul tries to reach out to his newfound family, he's touchingly awkward. The kid actors are more than all right. The watchful Wasikowska shows the wheels turning in Joni's head, trying to re-assemble the puzzle pieces of her life; and Hutcherson lets you glimpse the person fighting to emerge from under layers of defenses.
Cholodenko has a female partner and a child, and in a political climate hostile to gay families it must be hard for her even to suggest that two moms might not be enough. But she's a true dramatist. She tests what is presumably her own design for living; she bombards it with every satirical weapon in her arsenal. Then she picks up the pieces and rebuilds.
But Cholodenko also wants you to see that despite the gaps in the pioneer family life of Nic and Jules, Joni and Laser have enough of a foundation, enough love, to grope their way to all-rightness. The self-satire of The Kids Are All Right is so rich, so hilarious, so healthy you wonder how anyone could find a reason to vote against it. (Recommended)